Microaggressions lead to burnout for Black employees

'Creating that welcoming and safe environment is definitely on the shoulders of HR'

Microaggressions lead to burnout for Black employees

Subtle racial messages, known as microaggressions, have long been talked about in racialized communities, but little has been studied about their effect in the workplace.

Now, a study published by Rice University has shown that microaggressions actually increase levels of burnout and contribute to a growing unhappiness within the workplace, especially for Black employees.

Unlike in social settings, employees who are experiencing any type of aggression at work cannot ignore their aggressors, says Elisa Fattoracci, graduate student in psychological sciences at the Houston-based university, so it is something that must be recognized and addressed.

“The workplace is an environment that, unlike other social domains, you can’t just avoid people who might harbour prejudice against you. You can’t avoid a colleague or a boss or a client who delivers microaggressions toward you like you would anyone else in social interactions.”

Questions for answers

The study — done by Danielle King, assistant professor of psychological sciences, David Hollingsworth, a clinical psychologist at Tuscaloosa Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alabama and former Rice undergraduates Elliot Stahr, now at Stanford University Law School, and Melinda Nelson — heard from 345 Black employees in the U.S. who discussed some of the workplace experiences.

The survey asked participants to respond to “validated and reliable scales that psychologists rely on, as well as having employees respond to some open-ended questions,” says Fattoracci.

“And then we essentially went through their responses and perform some statistical tests on the quantitative data and some analyses on the open-ended responses as well.”

The group then dug down and asked 99 participants to further describe their experiences.

“We asked them: ‘How did you feel during and after this encounter? Did you respond to it at all? How did you cope and did you report the microaggression? If you did, whom did you report it to and how did they respond?’ We really wanted to get a sense of what the whole experience was like,” says Fattoracci.

The research team then broke down the data into three main themes, she says: anti-black stereotype expression, racialized role assignment, and interactional injustice.

Daily aggressions

In speaking to the employees, one person’s experience “will just be forever burned or etched into my brain,” says Fattoracci.

“[The] employee described that some money went missing at work, and their boss called the employee in to speak with them in private about the missing money. And during this confrontation, the boss essentially said, ‘I want you to confess their crime.’ When the employee denied taking the money, the boss didn’t really believe them and later on, the boss found the missing money in an envelope in his own car that he had forgotten and he never even apologized to the employee for it.”

This episode succinctly illustrated some of the negative experiences Black employee face on a daily basis, she says. 

“This is a perfect example of what a microaggression is like: the perpetrator didn’t say, ‘Because you’re black, I’m accusing you of having taken the money;’ that was never clearly articulated but it was so clear in the behaviour and in the words that were used in that exchange.”

Almost two-thirds of Canadian workers reported some form of microaggression, according to a survey.

These behaviours are hitting some workers hard, says Fattoracci, and leading to negative outcomes at the workplace.

“People of colour who are experienced microaggressions often engage in a lot of co-rumination, meaning they think through the encounter over and over again, and they wonder, ‘Was this racially motivated? [Am I] reading into the situation?’ There’s a lot of self-doubt that comes into play and what we essentially demonstrated through statistics is that both the co-rumination that comes from experiencing these microaggressions, as well as the vigilance that comes from wanting to prevent future encounters with microaggressions, are ultimately having negative effects on employees, burnout in the workplace, or job satisfaction.”

“Essentially, microaggressions are really depleting for the people who experience them and we see this in that they are less satisfied with their job,” she says.

Now is the time for re-education

For one diversity expert, now is the right time to expose an issue that many Black employees have known about for years.

“First of all, it brings awareness, which is very important to the topic because I think that black employees have been suffering from burnout for many, many, many, many decades,” says Tamisha Parris, founder and CEO of Parris Consulting in Vancouver.

“But especially after the last while of being home, and being out of the workplace, and being away from some of that workplace toxicity, and now re-entering the workplace and what that’s going to look like, it’s a really important time to be having these conversations; to be recognizing that this is real, and that this happens, and that this is a huge part of the workforce.”

“Microaggressions are the ones that just go at you and go at you and go at you,” she says.

With many workers coming back into places where they might not feel safe, this a perfect opportunity for executive and supervisor reeducation, says Parris.

“HR can educate, HR can empower their leaders to have these conversations properly, having conversations that are going to hold leaders accountable, hold the organization accountable, and make sure that they’re doing everything they can to eliminate racism and discrimination and these microaggressions from the work environment which they are responsible for creating.”

This awareness will allow employees to understand that sometimes what they say, while perhaps not meaning to be that way, can be extremely harmful, says Parris.

“For instance, when somebody says to a black employee ‘You’re so lucky that you can wear your hair like that. I could never get away with that,’ it sometimes it is in the form of what would be considered ‘I wasn’t being mean. I really meant it as a compliment,’” says Parris.

While many workers were remote during the pandemic, toxic environments continued into the virtual world.

Takeaways for HR

For those in the Black community, “microaggressions lead to burnout because it’s chronic and it happens all the time,” says Parris.

For HR, fixing this problem revolves around providing plenty of documentation.

“Any ways in which HR can really prioritize the racial equity in the workplace by providing resources, by providing training, especially for leadership; helping them to help their teams, giving them the tools that they need, as well as the tools that their teams need in order to get their jobs done in this safe environment are really important. Creating that welcoming and safe environment is definitely on the shoulders of HR in some capacity,” says Parris.

Making sure that employees know they can speak to HR about this is also key in eradicating it, says Fattoracci.

“HR professionals need to be sensitive and need to make employees aware that these are real thing that they should come forward with and there needs to be tangible consequences: a company has to stand behind whatever they claim so, at the very least, an employee should be able to anonymously report a microaggression and then companies should figure out how to address these and how to really cultivate a culture that has zero tolerance toward microaggressions.”

“Ultimately, organizations need to do a better job of teaching their employees about what microaggressions are, and what they might look like, and they need to do a better job of teaching their employees how to properly respond to them,” she says.


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